Each week we are highlighting the final resting place of someone related to the Lincoln assassination story. It may be the grave of someone whose name looms large in assassination literature, like a conspirator, or the grave of one of the many minor characters who crossed paths with history. Welcome to Grave Thursday.
Burial Location: Oak Ridge Cemetery, Springfield, Illinois
Connection to the Lincoln assassination:
On September 26, 1901, Fleetwood Lindley was attending his school in Springfield, Illinois when he received a note sent by his father. The note told the 14 year-old to leave school immediately, hop on his bicycle, and ride quickly to Oak Ridge Cemetery. When Lindley arrived at the cemetery he found a group of twenty men and two women gathered around the outside of Abraham Lincoln’s tomb. Over the past 15 months, the final resting place of President Lincoln had undergone massive renovations. During that time, the coffins of the Lincoln family had been placed in a temporary crypt next to the tomb. With the restoration complete, the coffins were officially being moved back into the tomb. While the coffins of Mary Todd, Willie, Tad, and Eddie Lincoln, would be placed in the wall of the tomb, it had been ordered by the last surviving Lincoln son, Robert Todd, that his father’s coffin be placed in a cage ten feet deep where it would be encased in concrete for all time. This seemingly extreme burial procedure was due in part to the almost successful grave robbing of Lincoln’s remains in 1876.
Though Robert Todd Lincoln had requested that his father’s coffin not be reopened at the time of the final burial, those present on September 26, 1901 could not pass up the chance to look upon the face of the Great Emancipator. Under the guise of verifying that the body of Abraham Lincoln did, indeed, lay inside the coffin, the decision was made to open part of it. Lincoln’s coffin had been opened four times previous to this, the last of which having occurred in 1887. Fleetwood’s father, Joseph Lindley, had been present when the casket was opened back in 1887 and likely wanted his son to share in the experience this time.
A piece of the lead-lined coffin was chiseled away. Fleetwood Lindley joined the others present and took his turn gazing upon Lincoln’s face for the last time. After the identification was complete, the coffin was resealed, and Lincoln was placed into his concrete tomb.
Gazing upon the face of Abraham Lincoln made an indelible impression on Fleetwood, who was the youngest person present that day. He would describe the scene several times over the course of his life. He lived his whole life in Springfield, starting his own floral business which he ran for over 40 years. He was a frequent speaker around Springfield and later served as the president of the board of managers for Oak Ridge Cemetery. He could often be found greeting visitors to Lincoln’s tomb and telling his story about viewing Lincoln’s remains.
“Lincoln’s face seemed to be well preserved. It was ash white in color,” Lindley recalled in 1934. “The head piece in the lead coffin had rotted away and Lincoln’s head was thrown back and resting to one side. His clothes were mildewed.”
In 1962, Lindley told his rotary club that, “We all filed slowly around the coffin. Lincoln was a chalky white. The head rest had given away, so his head had slipped backward. He had been in the casket for 36 years. His nose and chin were the most predominant features. The body was remarkably well preserved. He looked just like his pictures.”
While Fleetwood Lindley was well known around Springfield, he achieved wider recognition when he was highlighted in Life Magazine on February 15, 1963. At the time of his interview, Lindley was the last surviving member of the group of 23 that had viewed Lincoln’s remains. He gave his interview to the Life Magazine reporter from his room at St. John’s Hospital in Springfield where he was awaiting a gall bladder operation. The Life Magazine article describing the final identification of Abraham Lincoln can be read, in full, here.
Lindley ended his recollections with the following, “Yes, his face was chalky white. His clothes were mildewed. And I was allowed to hold one of the leather straps as we lowered the casket for the concrete to be poured. I was not scared at the time but I slept with Lincoln for the next six months.”
The interview for Life Magazine proved to be the last one Fleetwood Lindley ever gave. He passed away only a couple of days later on January 31*, 1963 at St. John’s Hospital. He was 75 years old.
Fleetwood Lindley, the last living person to have seen the face of Abraham Lincoln, is buried not far from the Lincoln Tomb in Springfield’s Oak Ridge Cemetery.
* Many online sources, including Wikipedia and FindaGrave, give Lindley’s death date as February 1, 1963 due to that date having been given in the Life Magazine article. However, his obituary and death record clearly indicate he died at around 9:30 pm on Thursday, January 31, 1963.
GPS coordinates for Fleetwood Lindley’s grave: 39.822233, -89.658423